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Creating a Biennale for a Fractured City

Ilona Yusuf interviews Niilofur Farrukh, CEO of KB17 and KB19, as well as Managing Trustee of the Karachi Biennale Trust

Niilofur Farrukh

Ilona Yusuf: What was the inspiration for creating the Karachi Biennale?

Niilofur Farrukh: From 2010, Karachi was going through a crisis of violence. As art professionals we asked each other how we could bring together a fractured city, take people out of their comfort zones. Because the city had become divided into several zones, and there was no conversation between the various parts.

IY: Your idea was to bring people from one area of the city, say Defence, to the centre of Karachi. I remember seeing pictures of the various installations made during the first biennale in 2017.

NF: Yes, and art did that, it made people venture out of their homes. On M.A Jinnah Road, which was traditionally the core of the city, we had five venues. People had otherwise stopped going there, some young people had never been there. An entire generation of people didn’t know the significance of the buildings!Karachi being the city that it is, a city of migrants, each group of migrants creates its own narrative. What we wanted to do was to open up that narrative. So we chose NJV School as the principal venue. NJV School was founded by a Hindu philanthropist at the end of the nineteenth century…it was a major school and it actually educated many of our early politicians. And when Pakistan came into being, it was used as the first Constituent Assembly. So it has this major history, it’s a fabulous building…and nobody ever went there! It was just deteriorating.

IY: So in a sense you were resurrecting the history of Karachi…

NF: Exactly. And people actually shared it. Once you take up an area that is shared history, or shared heritage, people sort of wake up and start celebrating it together. That was the whole idea. And because we put in art - we installed the works of 180 artists at all the venues – people went to them. Art was kind of drawing them, and through it they were discovering much more. And inadvertently, they were doing all this together. I think that was how we conceived the whole idea, and conceptualised it into its final form. And to a great extent it did mobilise people. Our vision was to bring the city together. Also, to create public audiences for art, because art has always been perceived as something very elitist, and it’s almost always hung in gallery spaces where very few people get to see it.

IY: I remember we had this discussion years ago, about how government galleries were showing state- sponsored art which in the eighties and nineties was usually very politicised, with a religious bent. Whereas in the private galleries you saw the contemporary, anti-establishment, again political art, but it was only accessible to the elite.

NF: Exactly. So art needed to be seen by a lot more people, because it was about the people and their concerns. So for KB 17 we came up with the theme of Witness, which was very relevant, because at that time, when Karachi was in the grip of a wave of violence, none of the actual witnesses were coming forward. Even people who saw it happening wouldn’t step forward and give evidence. So coming from the specific idea of witness and what it meant for Karachi, and broadening it to the idea of witness in your personal life, witnessing your times – because you had international artists coming from abroad who would interpret it in more personal terms – I think it worked well.

On the idea of the Biennale

IY: When you started thinking about the idea of the biennale, was it through your own exposure to biennales abroad? Because I understand that you’ve been very involved with international biennales.

NF: I’ve been attending Biennales for several decades, and studying them. There were three biennales that impressed me, and I shared their history with my colleagues. One was the biennale of Havana, in the 1960s, which brought artists of the non-aligned countries to Cuba.

IY: I understand there was plenty of anti-establishment art in those times. I remember being taken into the basement storage of Arizona State University by the then curator, Peter Held, and seeing Cuban art from those times. There was a lot of tongue in cheek work.

NF: Yes, from the Freedom Movements. So I felt that was significant, because, traditionally, the West has dominated the biennales. But the Havana Biennale brought together the non-aligned world, and celebrated it. It was different from being judged through the lens of the West. That really made a lot of sense to me. The other one was the Asian Art Biennale, which Dhaka introduced about ten years after their independence from Pakistan. Artists had played an important role in the independence movement, the freedom fight for Bangladesh. So the government, which was the sponsoring body of the biennale, automatically granted them space to rally together and continue their dialogue to talk to the world about their role, because it was used as a diplomatic exchange tool, to reach out to the outside world. And I was also looking at the Sao Paulo Biennale. When I was reading the history of biennales, critics felt that initially when the Sao Paulo biennale took place, the public couldn’t connect with it. It was like an oddity in the city, where all the local and international artists had come together. So the committee ran a very interesting project for youth, bringing them in for educational tours, engaging them throughout so they could understand it. That seemed to me like a wonderful strategy, something we needed here in Pakistan. So that’s what we started doing, working with schools, universities, art schools. We’d never had a biennale in Karachi, and this was the best way of preparing people for it. Because, unlike a Museum which is permanent, the biennale is typically a week-long event. So we did a pre biennale programming, both in 2017 and for this one, though this time in a more concerted way. And we also had a very long discursive programme, which a lot of biennales over the world don’t have.

IY: Which means discussion between artists and also between educational institutions?

NF: The way we are looking at art, is supporting artists in their dialogues and their experiments. In Karachi we have two genres that are really taking root. One is sound art, and one is performance. Now, sound art has an interesting overlap with music, because artists use sound in a way that’s inspired by music in its arrangement. There are also some artists who are giving a visual form to musical score.

IY: Like Shahzia Sikandar?

NF: Exactly. So you’re crossing the lines between disciplines. And that’s what we wanted to talk about in our Roundtables. We had several roundtables, in which we were bringing multiple genres together. But mainly we were giving visibility to art. Prior to this, artists had worked on a one on one basis with musicians, but this time we were bringing them together as a group. We also brought in poets and writers to talk about their experience, or people to talk about how they were inspired by literature. Artists have been inspired by literature before, so that in itself isn’t a new thing, but previously it had been more in the line of illustrative interpretation, whereas this time there were conceptual interpretations of literature.We even had architects and town planners come in and talk to artists who were looking at the city. When we talk about the city it’s usually through an urban, westernised gaze. We wanted to gauge whether there were other ways in which the city was being looked at. And we were able to bring together some people who were able to bring us closer to the reality rather than a fixed frame being brought to the actual reality. So that was the discursive part.

KB 19. Flight Interrupted: Eco-Leaks from the Invasion Desk

IY: Let’s talk about the theme for KB 19.

NF: Well, the theme, as we discussed before, is ecology…

IY: Not just because of the global challenges, but also because it’s very pertinent to Karachi itself, because it’s had massive problems, which we’ve seen reinforced only recently.

NF: I think that in the last five years, the heat waves in Karachi have been completely debilitating. Then, we’ve seen the mangrove forest really recede, because the land is being cleared for development. Then of course we have extreme drought. And the latest information shows that it’s not about lack of water, it’s about lack of clean water. So water isn’t being re-circulated for use as is done in many metropolises. And of course there’s the general pollution: garbage, because it’s a city of 22 million, maybe more.

So the theme is anchored in the issues of Karachi, but connected to global issues. And that’s what we wanted to do: use the local to connect to the global issues. That explains the thematic, 'Flight, Interrupted: Eco-leaks from the Invasion Desk'

Let me explain. Karachi used to be home to many species of low flying birds. They would nest in trees or shrubs or low hillocky areas. Those birds are now lost. Either they’ve adapted or they’ve gone. Because of the high rise buildings. So the title refers to them, because they have lost their habitat. Eco-leaks refers to wiki leaks, and here we’re referring to the artists bringing in new knowledge, which isn’t in circulation, from their own locations. We have 100 artists, from Pakistan and sixteen countries, and we expect them to bring their own knowledge, from the ground.

IY: Are the international artists predominantly African, since you mentioned working with Africa for this biennale?

NF: No, they are international, from all continents. So, to continue, the invasion desk means that it’s almost like an onslaught on the planet. So there are multiple references in the title. We’re looking at works that will communicate to the public, we’re looking at experimental work, there is a lot of video…Now, let me tell you about the venues, because I think the venue is always very much an integral part of a biennale.

IY: And also something about the participating artists…

NF: Absolutely. We’ve chosen seven venues this time, three of which are public parks. So we’re going to go outdoors. They’ve been chosen for two reasons. One of them has the oldest trees in Karachi. That’s the Karachi Zoo. And the zoo embodies the issue of endangered species, which exist only in captivity. Some of the artists chose the zoo themselves to exhibit their work. Iranian artist Mohsin Keyani’s subject is birds. A Hunza artist has chosen the white leopard. We have a Swiss performance artist, Victorine Muller, who does a performance inside huge inflated forms, like twice the size of an elephant. Her work will be next to the elephant enclosure. The idea is for the audience to experience this constant juxtaposition of the species live as they are in the zoo, with the artist’s interpretation.

Our principal venue is the Bagh Ibn e Qasim, the old Kothari Parade. There’s a cluster of three heritage sites within Bagh Ibn e Qasim: the Kothari parade, the Bandstand and the Lady Lloyd Pier, which runs like a promenade towards the water

Bin Qasim Park — one of the venues of KB19 (Wikimedia Commons)

When I was a child the promenade ended in the water, and the water would be beneath the pier, but now it’s receded because the sea has receded. A twelve acre park has been developed on the reclaimed land where the sea has receded, around these heritage sites. It’s interestingly laid out. There are no trees because they can’t grow in the sand. But there’s a grassy area. Under the pier we are exhibiting about thirty artists. Again, we’re bringing people out, and hopefully we will draw people from everywhere through the parks. We are also using the Frere Hall, and the NED building, which is the oldest university in Karachi. By showing these heritage sites we’re also connecting to the Parsi philanthropists who really built this city, apart from the colonial buildings, which date from when the city was developed as a port. So that’s another layer we want to introduce into this conversation. How is all this connected to ecology? Well, you know, you look at the park and you really think about ecology because you look at the sea, which has receded, and you have this wonderful view of the beach as well as the sprawl of the city and then of course you see how the city has changed.

Provoking curiosity, questioning the status quo

IY: During the Biennale, do you have talks for people who’ve lost touch with the city and its heritage, to make them aware of its history?

NF: On all social media we are posting the venues along with their history. So the experience isn’t just going in and coming out. We’re really pushing people to recognise the architectural features, the history of the place. And when people come on tours we also point out these heritage elements. We integrate the event with the site, so that observers interact with it.

IY: Is this done by signposting or through tour guides?

NF: Both by signage, and having those conducting tours talk about the historical significance of the venue.

IY: I was thinking that people often don’t read so they might like the idea of volunteer tour guides.

NF: They’re all volunteers…even we work as volunteers, we’ve put our effort and energy into the biennale as volunteers.

IY: Is all this being done with a view to provoking them to ask questions about the way we’re living, the way the country’s run, or about issues which are affecting their lives very directly without them necessarily realising it? Because nobody’s consciously thinking about it.

NF: We don’t want to preach to people. Art is about provocative questions.

Curating the Biennale: the process

NF: The curator has tremendous freedom. In fact, this time we worked with the curator and we developed him professionally. We have criteria that for the first three or four biennales we want curators who are based in Karachi, so they understand the pulse of the city. And then we want them to have time available. Because we can only pay them a nominal amount for the time and energy they put into the project. All that commitment has to be there. So people are hesitant to apply. So, this young man came and we liked his energy. He’s an established artist with curatorial experience but he hadn’t curated large shows. So we worked with Mohammad Zeeshan by designing a programme in which he met the scholars and people engaged in Karachi, for instance Arif Hassan and Yasmeen Lari who’s involved with Orangi Pilot Project, our major partner. Also Kalamati who is a historian writing on the pre modern history of the Karachi region – he was the one who talked about the birds, because he knew old Karachi. So this is how we started the critical dialogue. Then we arranged for the curator to travel to biennales in different countries through our partners, from where he could select international artists. Because going to an artist’s studio is totally different from seeing something on the net. He had a lot of his own connections, and I must say that he had tremendous enthusiasm, so this has worked out very well for us. We’re very happy that Zeeshan is at the helm of affairs. It’s been very good for his professional growth, and we’re very proud that we’ve been able to support this kind of development.

A developed vs undeveloped world: the South-South dialogue

NF: The second component of the discursive part of the Biennale was the South South dialogue, which is a continuing feature of the Biennale. Since we constantly talk about politics, I want to say here that it was a political act to create a South South dialogue. We should never underestimate this, because all our dialogues go West and then come back to us rehashed by the West. But when you are in direct dialogue with the South, you automatically learn much more which is unfiltered. We read about Latin America’s people and projects directly rather than a version edited for the consumption of another people.In KB 17, we looked at Latin America and studied the ideas that had come out of the Sao Paulo Biennale: the art and culture theoreticians and the art critics. Because Latin America had experiences similar to ours, and went through the development of art in an earlier period than us, their writers and thinkers had left behind a body of work, which I think resonates with us. We had two art critics and curators from Latin America who came to Karachi for KB 17 - this incidentally comes through my network with the international art critics’ association – and they spoke about the idea of the 21st century biennale. Dannys Montes de Oca is the head of the Winfred Lam Institution, which holds the Havana Biennale, and Adriana Almada from Paraguay, who has held shows not only there but also in a larger part of Latin America. So these are by and large well-established people.

IY: All this exchange creates a body of research that you can archive…

NF: Yes, and to me this was the most exciting element. And they felt that way too. The Pakistan that they discovered was a place where they felt totally at home.This time, for KB 19, we’re working with Africa. But we’ve encountered many more problems. First of all, Africa is not a monolith. The northern and the Southern parts are very different from the central part. We wanted the ideas that germinated in these sessions to be put into the catalogue. Because otherwise, there’s no documentation of ideas or of the process of cross pollination.

IY: So, in this biennale you’re working with Africa. They must have many problems similar to Pakistan’s with regard to climate, or since I’ve been watching documentaries - dumping by the west.

NF: That’s one aspect of it. What we were trying to do with African writers is to understand their core issues. And one thing that appears repeatedly is racism. Usually we understand racism through the lens of the United States, especially through recently debated issues. But when you read African writers, from the Caribbean all the way to mainland Africa, it’s a dominant theme. Everything pivots around it. In Pakistan everything revolves around Partition. But in Africa, it's racism. In a way it disables them from participation, to progress.

IY: When you talk about racism, you’re not just talking about ex-colonials, you’re referring to racism between races in Africa…like for instance in Rwanda between Hutu and Tutsi.

NF: That’s part of it. But in particular we’ve been reading the work of Souleymane Bachir Diagne, who’s written a fascinating book about rhythm in African art. Now, when the West looks at African art, they see distortion. But what does it mean to an African? In view of all this, what we wanted to explore is, if someone is distorting your narrative by giving it a label, what does it mean to you? Really, what it means is that it takes away your ability to speak. For KB 19, then, we chose artists from Senegal and Ethiopia. So, we’re not looking at either North or South Africa, we’re concentrating on places where things are at a stage where we can find a very independent perspective. So, I would say this project is ongoing, it won’t end with KB 19, because it’s a mammoth project, which we didn’t realise when we began. With Latin America, which is linguistically predominantly Spanish, a lot of material was available, - and it’s also been translated into English, so you can get a grip on it. But Africa is very heterogeneous.

East vs West: The concept of the Biennale

IY: How do events like the Venice Biennale differ from the Karachi Biennale’s interactive way of conducting the event? Are Western biennales like this or are they completely different?

NF: Good question, Ilona!

IY: Because you said at the beginning that you studied various models…Sao Paulo, Havana…NF: I looked at Venice as well! I looked at Manifesta, I looked at a lot of Western biennales.

IY: How does it differ? Because you want people to ask questions, you want to provoke people into doing that? I feel that what we suffer from in Pakistan is a lack of reference points and the fact that we’ve become used to not asking questions. I feel that’s what you’re doing through creating these interactive spaces, where people are actually confronted with the city, its history, its problems, its strengths while looking at art.

NF: One important influence on my philosophy of the biennale has been Okwui Enwezor. He was an African intellectual who became a writer and a curator later. He curated the Venice Biennale two biennales ago. When I was reading his writings and ideas, and all these ideas for the Karachi Biennale were germinating, we realised that actually the biennale was just a format. Like a structure. The textures of the structure have to come from you, and each player will bring something to it. Anyway, coming back to Okwui. He said you can make the biennale whatever you want it to be. I found that idea very inspiring. It’s also about your objectives. Like, if you’re writing a book, you want to achieve something, right? And as far as models go, we don’t need to follow a Western model. It may have originated from there but it has journeyed. And the reason we call it a biennale is because it takes place every two years. Other than that, it has very little in common with the original structure, because our issues are very different. And we need to address them, if we want to connect. Otherwise we could have stayed outside and remained disconnected from the people and with issues, and created a parallel world, an art world, oblivious to everything else. That’s my idea, my vision for the biennale here. Anyone who heads an institution brings their own experience, vision, their own philosophy, to it. I have to say that the trustees have been very supportive. We collectively look at the biennale as an intervention. I don’t like to talk about myself but I think all my life’s experience actually prepared me for this…for the opportunity to do a project like this. But there is another question that I want to bring forward. We feel that the Karachi biennale has given an identity to art in this city, because it has consolidated artists. There were artists who felt they were working with issues that related to the people but they weren’t connected to the people.

So we set up an immersive KBT Korangi Artists’ Residency in Korangi, where the artists lived in Korangi for one month –because we felt that you can’t engage with people superficially and talk about their problems

Funding and organisation

IY: How do you raise funding for the Biennale and its associated events? How many of you are on the board of the Karachi Biennale? Let’s say, decision makers and key members?

NF: We have a board of trustees, and we all chip in, but there are four office bearers. We have the Chair, Almas Bana, then the Secretary of the Trust, Bushra Hussain; I’m the Managing Trust, and we have Atteqa Malik who is the Treasurer. This is the decision making body. Then we have the fund raising group, which is the life saving group! Most of the funding comes from Pakistani philanthropists, as well as organisations working in Karachi. Obviously people from Karachi are better invested in something like this. That’s primarily where the money comes from. So, even through the current economic crunch, things are on track and we are fine.

Niilofur Farrukh with Amin Gulgee and friends


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